Friday, November 04, 2005


Wayfaring Strangers, Part 24

(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Apologetics and "Christianity-And-Water"

Sometimes I think I'd like to be a Christian apologist... or even, specifically, a Catholic apologist. At other times, though, I realize that I'm nowhere near ready to debate or argue for my faith. That's not because my faith is weak, and certainly not because I see Christianity as difficult to defend. The problem is that, by trying to be an apologist at this stage in my life, I'd be using God to glorify me instead of using myself to glorify God.

That's bad. I think it actually qualifies as taking the Lord's name in vain. That's a big no-no. One of the top ten, I believe.

My hero is C.S. Lewis, one of the best popular apologists of all time. Still, the ability to read, learn from, and understand his work doesn't translate into an ability on my part to present my own ideas as well as Lewis presented his. Neither, for that matter, am I qualified to present Lewis's ideas for him. Two recent events really made that clear to me. In one of them, I tried to argue my point of view and became combative... in the other, when presented with arguments that are counter to what I believe as a Christian, I simply remained mute. In neither case did I serve my faith well.

Sinning by transgression: Me and my big mouth

The incident wherein I said too much... or, rather, said what I said badly... was during an open thread at the Hidden Blog. The Unseen Blogger had invited his readers to participate in a discussion about what it would take to bring about unity among Christians. That kind of thing is right up my alley, so I jumped in with both feet. At one point, another blogger challenged one of my ideas, and I interpreted him to be saying that I wasn't narrow-minded enough to really be a Catholic. Let me say that again: I interpreted him to be saying that. That doesn't, of course, mean that he was really saying anything of the kind.

So, being who I am, I basically jumped up in his face and started wagging my finger. "Don't YOU tell ME..." "Who do YOU think you ARE..." That kind of thing. Of course, in retrospect, I looked back over the discussion and thought that I had probably overreacted. (Me? Overreact? NAAAAH. Couldn't have been.)

What it boiled down to was, in a discussion of Christian unity, I behaved in a way that certainly didn't encourage Christian unity.

Sinning by omission: Silence is the voice of complicity

I posted an entry at this blog while that thread at the Hidden Blog was active, encouraging readers to come over and participate. I got a couple of comments to the effect that it was wrong to discuss unity among Christians unless you are willing to discuss unity among anyone with any religious faith, and that Christianity is really just part of the big picture. I really didn't say much in response to that, even though I did disagree with it. That was wrong, too.

I've got to have the ability to disagree politely and in a loving way if I'm ever going to be any kind of Christian. In one instance I noted above, I found myself getting kinda cruddy with people who share my faith... disagreeing, but not politely. In the other, I found myself staying mute when someone posted something I didn't agree with... sure, I wasn't rude, but I wasn't true to my beliefs, either.

That's pretty poor apologetics on both counts.

I refer to my hero, C.S. Lewis, and I find his arguments compelling, as usual:

When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong.

When I examine my own reluctance to even voice a meek disagreement with people who don't share my faith, I see that it comes down to a terrible fear that I will come off as "unenlightened." I don't want to seem like a "narrow minded Christian" or some "pious Catholic." That, in and of itself, really is putting myself before Christ. After all, I claim to worship a Savior who said that he brought not peace, but a sword... a Savior who warned his followers that the world would despise us just as it despised him. Forget being an amateur apologist... just to be a good Christian will require more from me than this.

The great Catholic teacher and writer Peter Kreeft finds ample evidence in Lewis's work that C.S. himself expected Christians to be thought of as divisive, insensitive, amateurish, fanatical, and simplistic. If it's good enough for my hero to be viewed that way, why isn't it good enough for me?

Not only that, but Lewis felt that watered-down Christianity wasn't much better than atheism:

Atheism is too simple. And I will tell you another view that is also too simple. It is the view I call Christianity-and-water, the view which simply says there is a good God in Heaven and everything is all right -- leaving out all the difficult and terrible doctrines about sin and hell and the devil, and the redemption. Both these are boys ' philosophies.

Being considered divisive, simplistic, and fanatical was good enough for my Savior. Why am I so afraid of being thought of badly by those who don't share my faith?

Part of it is that I do have a sympathy for those who espouse religious pluralism. There was a time, when I found myself unsatisfied by (what I saw as) the rigid, unrewarding trap of Fundamentalism... and I actually thought that Buddhism might offer me a chance to follow Christ more than Christianity (as I knew it) would. I never studied Buddhism seriously, but there was an appeal to it. Buddhism seemed to me to be about tranquility, charity, and peace. And, I suppose, it is about those things. (I'm sure that any given Buddhist would say it's about more than that or maybe less than that. One of the appeals of Buddhism is it's vagueness. If Fundamentalism is a vacuum, Buddhism is a sea.) Buddhism seemed to me to teach many of the same things that Christ taught... and before I discovered Catholicism, I thought that it taught them better (in some cases) than Christianity.

But, that was then. This is now. The more I learn, the more I realize that there are huge fundamental differences between Buddhism and real Christianity. Another of my heroes is G.K. Chesterton, the Catholic apologist and writer (we actually named our new puppy after him! And, he was a hero of Lewis's, too.) Chesterton was familiar with the idea that there is a harmony between Buddhism and Christianity, but it's only there in the sense that both religions can inspire their faithful to be kind and decent people. That's admirable, true enough. Still, when you examine the religions on a basic, philosophical level, they're as different as night and day. Chesterton put it this way in his book Orthodoxy:

That Buddhism approves of mercy or of self-restraint is not to say that it is specially like Christianity; it is only to say that it is not utterly unlike all human existence. Buddhists disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess because all sane human beings disapprove in theory of cruelty or excess. But to say that Buddhism and Christianity give the same philosophy of these things is simply false. All humanity does agree that we are in a net of sin. Most of humanity agrees that there is some way out. But as to what is the way out, I do not think that there are two institutions in the universe which contradict each other so flatly as Buddhism and Christianity.

The differences between the philosophy of Buddhism and the philosophy of Christianity becomes even clearer when you think about the symbols of the two faiths:

Even when I thought, with most other well-informed, though unscholarly, people, that Buddhism and Christianity were alike, there was one thing about them that always perplexed me; I mean the startling difference in their type of religious art. I do not mean in its technical style of representation, but in the things that it was manifestly meant to represent. No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive. There cannot be any real community of spirit between forces that produced symbols so different as that. Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.

Realizing these inherent differences between Buddhism and Christianity really bothered me. I'd always seen the two faiths as possible evidence that we really are all "on the same road" to salvation. Now, thanks to Chesterton's clarity, I'd realized that there's basically no common ground between Buddhism and Christianity at all. One faith demands charity and brotherly love from the faithful based on the premise that God Himself will settle for nothing less. The other encourages charity and brotherly love simply for their own sake. One faith sees man as the created entity and God as the separate, sovereign Creator. The other faith is pantheistic, seeing a presence of "god" in everything. The basic differences are never more apparent than when you consider the vast dissimilarity between the central images of each of the two religions: One is of a divine Man, tortured and murdered (in the most heinous way possible) so that he (and he alone) might save mankind. The symbol of the other faith is of a happy, peaceful fat man, content with what he has found inside himself.

Night and day.

I'm not trying to knock Buddhism, I do disagree with it, but I still have a lot of respect for Buddhists and the kindness and altruism that their religion inspires... but to see them both as twins, or as two halves of a whole, or as two ways to say the same thing, just can't be right.

So, there I am. If I no longer see real philosophical harmony between the two religions that I once considered the most similar, how am I to tell myself that all religions (or even most) are relatively equal?

I have to learn to express disagreement with non-Christians, but do it in a way that Christ would approve of. Christ didn't scream and yell and force his beliefs on anyone, and as one of his followers, I'm compelled to behave as much like him as I can.

At the same time, I have to learn to curb my zest when I disagree about specifics within the different practices of Christianity itself. It doesn't do anyone any good (and it especially doesn't do much for the cause of Christianity) when I turn into a zealot and start a crusade against other Christians.

The solution to both problems is the same: Disagree and love.... But love first, last, and most.

Meantime, I think it's probably best to remember that I'm no apologist. Before I can event think of becoming one, I've got to become a much better Christian.

Excellent post, Darrell.
Anyone who compares their ability to explain faith and the life of faith with that of C.S. Lewis will fall short. He was such a gifted man. He knew great pain and somehow wrestled with it all and came to some very startling realizations about faith. Mainly, it is not easy.
My hubby's blog is all about reactions. He had been discussing overreactors and underreactors. You may like his posts.
As one of the people who spoke about faith in a larger context, I didn't think your silence was based in meekness. I knew and respected your stance, and imagined that we'd each said our bit. I still felt that yours is a place where differing opinions can be stated. Of course, I would hate to state some offhand thing and be blown off the page by your scathing can remove layers of skin with a word or two.

I did like your final round-up in this piece though.
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